Tag Archives: Concordia University

Synthetic Aesthetics update and an informal Canadian synthetic biology roundup

Amanda Ruggeri has written a very good introduction to synthetic biology for nonexperts in her May 20, 2015 Globe and Mail article about ‘Designing for the Sixth Extinction’, an exhibit showcasing designs and thought experiments focused on synthetic biology ,

In a corner of Istanbul’s Design Biennial late last year [2014], photographs of bizarre creatures sat alongside more conventional displays of product design and typefaces. Diaphanous globes, like transparent balloons, clung to the mossy trunk of an oak tree. Rust-coloured patterns ran across green leaves, as if the foliage had been decorated with henna. On the forest floor, a slug-like creature slithered, its back dotted with gold markings; in another photograph, what looked like a porcupine without a head crawled over the dirt, its quills tipped blood-red.

But as strange as the creatures looked, what they actually are is even stranger. Not quite living things, not quite machines, these imagined prototypes inhabit a dystopic, future world – a world in which they had been created to solve the problems of the living. The porcupine, for example, is an Autonomous Seed Disperser, described as a device that would collect and disperse seeds to increase biodiversity. The slug would be programmed to seek out acidic soils and neutralize them by dispersing an alkali hygroscopic fluid.

They are the designs – and thought experiments – of London-based Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, designer, artist and lead author of the book Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature. In her project Designing for the Sixth Extinction, which after Istanbul is now on display at the Design Museum in London, Ginsberg imagines what a synthetic biology-designed world would look like – and whether it’s desirable. “

I have a couple of comments. First, the ‘Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature’ book launch last year was covered here in a May 5, 2014 post. where you’ll notice a number of the academics included in Ruggeri’s article are contributors to the book (but not mentioned as such). Second, I cannot find ‘Design for the Sixth Extinction’ listed as an exhibition on London’s Design Museum website.

Getting back to the matter at hand, not all of the projects mentioned in Ruggeri’s article are ‘art’ projects, there is also this rather practical and controversial initiative,

Designing even more complex organisms is the inevitable, and controversial, next step. And those designs have already begun. The British company Oxitec has designed a sterile male mosquito. When the bugs are released into nature and mate, no offspring result, reducing the population or eliminating it altogether. This could be a solution to dengue fever, a mosquito-carried disease that infects more than 50 million people each year: In field trials in Cayman, Panama and Brazil, the wild population of the dengue-carrying mosquito species was reduced by 90 per cent. Yet, as a genetically engineered solution, it also makes some skittish. The consequences of such manipulations remain unforeseen, they say. Proponents counter that the solution is more elegant, and safer, than the current practice of spraying chemicals.

Even so, the engineered mosquito leads to overarching questions: What are the dangers of tinkering with life? Could this cause a slide toward eugenics? Currently, the field doesn’t have an established ethics oversight process, something some critics are pushing to change.

It’s a surprising piece for the Globe and Mail newspaper to run since it doesn’t have a Canadian angle to it and the Globe and Mail doesn’t specialize in science (not withstanding Ivan Semeniuk’s science articles) or art/science or synthetic biology writing, for that matter. Perhaps it bodes an interest and more pieces on emerging science and technology and on art/science projects?

In any event, it seems like a good time to review some of the synthetic biology work or the centres of activity in Canada.  I believe the last time I tackled this particular topic was in a May 24, 2010 post titled, Canada and synthetic biology in the wake of the first ‘synthetic’ bacteria.

After a brief search, I found three centres for research:

Concordia [University] Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology (CASB)

[University of Toronto] The Synthetic Biology and Cellular Control Lab

[University of British Columbia] Centre for High-Throughput Biology (CHiBi)

Following an Oct. 27 – 28, 2014 UK-Canada Synthetic Biology Workshop held at Concordia University, Rémi Quirion, Vincent Martin, Pierre Meulien and Marc LePage co-wrote a Nov. 4, 2014 Concordia University post titled, How Canada is poised to revolutionize synthetic biology,

Rémi Quirion is the Chief Scientist of Québec, Fonds de recherche du Québec. Vincent Martin is Canada Research Chair in Microbial Genomics and Engineering and a professor in the Department of Biology at Concordia University in Montreal. Pierre Meulien is President and CEO of Genome Canada. Marc LePage is the President and CEO of Génome Québec.

Canada’s research and business communities have an opportunity to become world leaders in a burgeoning field that is fast shaping how we deal with everything from climate change to global food security and the production of lifesaving medications. The science of synthetic biology has the transformative capacity to equip us with novel technology tools and products to build a more sustainable society, while creating new business and employment opportunities for the economy of tomorrow.

We can now decipher the code of life for any organism faster and less expensively than ever before. Canadian scientists are producing anti-malarial drugs from organic materials that increase the availability and decrease the cost of lifesaving medicines. They are also developing energy efficient biofuels to dramatically reduce environmental and manufacturing costs, helping Canadian industry to thrive in the global marketplace.

The groundwork has also been laid for a Canadian revolution in the field. Canada’s scientific community is internationally recognized for its leadership in genomics research and strong partnerships with key industries. Since 2000, Genome Canada and partners have invested more than $2.3 billion in deciphering the genomes of economically important plants, animals and microbes in order to understand how they function. A significant proportion of these funds has been invested in building the technological toolkits that can be applied to synthetic biology.

But science cannot do it alone. Innovation on this scale requires multiple forms of expertise in order to be successful. Research in law, business, social sciences and humanities is vital to addressing questions of ethics, supply chain management, social innovation and cultural adaptation to new technologies. Industry knowledge and investments, as well as the capacity to incentivize entrepreneurship, are key to devising business models that will enable new products to thrive. Governments and funding agencies also need to do their part by supporting multidisciplinary research, training and infrastructure.

It’s a bit ‘hype happy’ for my taste but it does provide some fascinating insight in what seems to be a male activity in Canada.

Counterbalancing that impression is an Oct. 6, 2013 article by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail about a University of Lethbridge team winning the top prize in a synthetic biology contest,

If you want to succeed in the scientific revolution of the future, it helps to think about life as a computer program.

That strategy helped University of Lethbridge students walk away with the top prize in a synthetic biology competition Sunday. Often touted as the genetic equivalent of the personal computer revolution, synthetic biology involves thinking about cells as programmable machines that can be designed and built to suit a particular need – whether it’s mass producing a vaccine or breaking down a hazardous chemical in the environment.

The five member Lethbridge team came up with a way to modify how cells translate genetic information into proteins. Rather than one bit of DNA carrying the information to make one protein – the usual way cells go about their business – the method involves inserting a genetic command that jiggles a cell’s translational machinery while it’s in mid-operation, coaxing it to produce two proteins out of the same DNA input.

“We started off with a computer analogy – kind of like zipping your files together – so you’d zip two protein sequences together and therefore save space,” said Jenna Friedt, a graduate student in biochemistry at Lethbridge. [emphasis mine]

There are concerns other than gender issues, chief amongst them, ethics. The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network maintains an information page on Synthetic Biology which boasts this as its latest update,

October 2014: In a unanimous decision of 194 countries, the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity formally urged countries to regulate synthetic biology, a new extreme form of genetic engineering. The landmark decision follows ten days of hard-fought negotiations between developing countries and a small group of wealthy biotech-friendly economies. Until now, synthetic organisms have been developed and commercialized without international regulations. …

Finally, there’s a June 2014 synthetic biology timeline from the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society, and Policy (ISSP) which contextualizes Canadian research, policy and regulation with Australia, the European Union, the UK, and the US.

(On a closely related note, there’s my May 14, 2015 post about genetic engineering and newly raised concerns.)

US White House establishes new initiatives to commercialize nanotechnology

As I’ve noted several times, there’s a strong push in the US to commercialize nanotechnology and May 20, 2015 was a banner day for the efforts. The US White House announced a series of new initiatives to speed commercialization efforts in a May 20, 2015 posting by Lloyd Whitman, Tom Kalil, and JJ Raynor,

Today, May 20 [2015], the National Economic Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy held a forum at the White House to discuss opportunities to accelerate the commercialization of nanotechnology.

In recognition of the importance of nanotechnology R&D, representatives from companies, government agencies, colleges and universities, and non-profits are announcing a series of new and expanded public and private initiatives that complement the Administration’s efforts to accelerate the commercialization of nanotechnology and expand the nanotechnology workforce:

  • The Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany, NY and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are launching the Nano Health & Safety Consortium to advance research and guidance for occupational safety and health in the nanoelectronics and other nanomanufacturing industry settings.
  • Raytheon has brought together a group of representatives from the defense industry and the Department of Defense to identify collaborative opportunities to advance nanotechnology product development, manufacturing, and supply-chain support with a goal of helping the U.S. optimize development, foster innovation, and take more rapid advantage of new commercial nanotechnologies.
  • BASF Corporation is taking a new approach to finding solutions to nanomanufacturing challenges. In March, BASF launched a prize-based “NanoChallenge” designed to drive new levels of collaborative innovation in nanotechnology while connecting with potential partners to co-create solutions that address industry challenges.
  • OCSiAl is expanding the eligibility of its “iNanoComm” matching grant program that provides low-cost, single-walled carbon nanotubes to include more exploratory research proposals, especially proposals for projects that could result in the creation of startups and technology transfers.
  • The NanoBusiness Commercialization Association (NanoBCA) is partnering with Venture for America and working with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to promote entrepreneurship in nanotechnology.  Three companies (PEN, NanoMech, and SouthWest NanoTechnologies), are offering to support NSF’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program with mentorship for entrepreneurs-in-training and, along with three other companies (NanoViricides, mPhase Technologies, and Eikos), will partner with Venture for America to hire recent graduates into nanotechnology jobs, thereby strengthening new nanotech businesses while providing needed experience for future entrepreneurs.
  • TechConnect is establishing a Nano and Emerging Technologies Student Leaders Conference to bring together the leaders of nanotechnology student groups from across the country. The conference will highlight undergraduate research and connect students with venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders.  Five universities have already committed to participating, led by the University of Virginia Nano and Emerging Technologies Club.
  • Brewer Science, through its Global Intern Program, is providing more than 30 students from high schools, colleges, and graduate schools across the country with hands-on experience in a wide range of functions within the company.  Brewer Science plans to increase the number of its science and engineering interns by 50% next year and has committed to sharing best practices with other nanotechnology businesses interested in how internship programs can contribute to a small company’s success.
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology is expanding its partnership with the National Science Foundation to provide hands-on experience for students in NSF’s Advanced Technology Education program. The partnership will now run year-round and will include opportunities for students at Hudson Valley Community College and the University of the District of Columbia Community College.
  • Federal agencies participating in the NNI [US National Nanotechnology Initiative], supported by the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office [NNCO], are launching multiple new activities aimed at educating students and the public about nanotechnology, including image and video contests highlighting student research, a new webinar series focused on providing nanotechnology information for K-12 teachers, and a searchable web portal on nano.gov of nanoscale science and engineering resources for teachers and professors.

Interestingly, May 20, 2015 is also the day the NNCO held its second webinar for small- and medium-size businesses in the nanotechnology community. You can find out more about that webinar and future ones by following the links in my May 13, 2015 posting.

Since the US White House announcement, OCSiAl has issued a May 26, 2015 news release which provides a brief history and more details about its newly expanded NanoComm program,

OCSiAl launched the iNanoComm, which stands for the Integrated Nanotube Commercialization Award, program in February 2015 to help researchers lower the cost of their most promising R&D projects dedicated to SWCNT [single-walled carbon nanotube] applications. The first round received 33 applications from 28 university groups, including The Smalley-Curl Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University and the Concordia Center for Composites at Concordia University [Canada] among others. [emphasis mine] The aim of iNanoComm is to stimulate universities and research organizations to develop innovative market products based on nano-augmented materials, also known as clean materials.

Now the program’s criteria are being broadened to enable greater private sector engagement in potential projects and the creation of partnerships in commercializing nanotechnology. The program will now support early stage commercialization efforts connected to university research in the form of start-ups, technology transfers, new businesses and university spinoffs to support the mass commercialization of SWCNT products and technologies.

The announcement of the program’s expansion took place at the 2015 Roundtable of the US NanoBusiness Commercialization Association (NanoBCA), the world’s first non-profit association focused on the commercialization of nanotechnologies. NanoBCA is dedicated to creating an environment that nurtures research and innovation in nanotechnology, promotes tech-transfer of nanotechnology from academia to industry, encourages private capital investments in nanotechnology companies, and helps its corporate members bring innovative nanotechnology products to market.

“Enhancing iNanoComm as a ‘start-up incubator’ is a concrete step in promoting single-wall carbon nanotube applications in the commercial world,” said Max Atanassov, CEO of OCSiAl USA. “It was the logical thing for us to do, now that high quality carbon nanotubes have become broadly available and are affordably priced to be used on a mass industrial scale.”

Vince Caprio, Executive Director of NanoBCA, added that “iNanoComm will make an important contribution to translating fundamental nanotechnology research into commercial products. By facilitating the formation of more start-ups, it will encourage more scientists to pursue their dreams and develop their ideas into commercially successful businesses.”

For more information on the program expansion and how it can reduce the cost of early stage research connected to university projects, visit the iNanoComm website at www.inanocomm.org or contact info@inanocomm.org.

h/t Azonano May 27, 2015 news item

Getting intimate with your smart clothing at Concordia University (Canada)

The Karma Chameleon project at Concordia University is an investigation into ‘smart’ clothing that goes beyond the ‘how to’ and also asks how would we feel about clothing than can transform itself without our volition. An Apr. 16, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily highlights the project and its lead researcher, Joanna Berkowska,

Joanna Berzowska, professor and chair of the Department of Design and Computation Arts at Concordia, has developed interactive electronic fabrics that harness power directly from the human body, store that energy, and then use it to change the garments’ visual properties.

“Our goal is to create garments that can transform in complex and surprising ways — far beyond reversible jackets, or shirts that change colour in response to heat. That’s why the project is called Karma Chameleon,” says Berzowska.

The Apr. 15, 2013 Concordia University news release by Emily Essert, which originated the news item, describes the unique technical aspect of this work,

The major innovation of this research project is the ability to embed these electronic or computer functions within the fibre itself: rather than being attached to the textile, the necessary electronic components are woven into these new composite fibres. The fibres consist of multiple layers of polymers, which, when stretched and drawn out to a small diameter, begin to interact with each other. The fabric, produced in collaboration with the École Polytechnique de Montréal’s Maksim Skorobogatiy, represent a significant advance in the development of “smart textiles.”

Although it’s not yet possible to manufacture clothing with the new composite fibres, Berzowska worked with fashion designers to create conceptual prototypes that can help us visualize how such clothing might look and behave. Imagine a dress that changes shape and colour on its own, or a shirt that can capture the energy from human movement and use it to charge an iPhone

According to Berzowska, it will be two to three decades before we see this clothing in the stores but in the meantime she’s also investigating the social impact (from the Concordia news release),

There would also be a performative aspect to wearing such garments, whose dramatic transformations may or may not be controlled by the wearer. This research raises interesting questions about human agency relative to fashion and computers. What would it mean to wear a piece of clothing with “a mind of its own,” that cannot be consciously controlled? How much intimate contact with computers do we really want?

Apparently, there will be a show at Montréal’s PHi Centre in either 2o13 or 2014, Unfortunately the centre does not list any events planned after June 2013.

The project title, Karma Chameleon gives me an excuse to feature Boy George’s identically titled hit song,

I’d never seen the video before and it was a revelation. Tip: Do not pickpocket jewellery or cheat at cards; Karma will get you.

Dialogues with the dead and other aspects of theatre and research

If theatre is, indeed, a dialogue with the dead as Antoine Vitez and Tadeusz Kantor would both have it, the dialogue I am drawn to spans many lives and many more deaths to be replicated in as many variations as can be explored, from straight theatre to circus, through installation and performance.

That quote is from Louis Patrick Leroux, associate professor at Concordia University (Montréal, Québec, Canada) and author of ‘Dialogues fantasques pour causeurs éperdus’, is being launched later today in Montréal. Leroux’s book explores links between intellectual/academic creation and theatrical/artistic expression. From the Nov. 28, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,

Concordia University researcher Louis Patrick Leroux is one scholar whose work often results in that type of outcome. A professor of creative writing and literature in Concordia’s Department of English as well as its Département d’études françaises, Leroux has spent years intimately involved in what is known as “research-creation,” a process that fosters the development and renewal of knowledge through aesthetic, technical, instrumental or other innovations.

“There’s a real need to bridge the gap between the creative and interpretive disciplines.” Leroux says. “If we can make that connection, we can link the humanities more closely to arts communities and create an important dialogue between academic and artistic creation.” He is now doing just that with his new book, Dialogues fantasques pour causeurs éperdus, published by Prise de parole.

By blending dramatic dialogues and thoughts on the creative process, Leroux gives his readers a new take on what it means to create as both a passionate and academic exercise. Before being compiled into a book, Leroux’s Dialogues were the fodder for a series of performative explorations, some theatrical, some filmed, others flirting with peformance art and installations at the Hexagram Concordia Centre for Research-Creation in Media Arts and Technologies.

The Nov. 26, 2012 Concordia University news release by Cléa Desjardins (which originated the release on EurekAlert) goes on to describe the book and give the location for its launch,

Dialogues fantasques offers an artistic way to understand the creative process and, in so doing, helps unpack the mysteries behind research-creation. Equal parts academic treatise and work of fiction, it is constructed in a way that makes the reader part of the research-creation experience. Even the book’s layout, designed by Concordia Assistant Professor of design Nathalie Dumont, invites the reader to think more about what it means to create and experience.

“There’s a lot of fascinating work that goes on in universities around the world that never makes it into peer-reviewed journals,” adds Leroux. He has been taking this message far and wide in recent months, thanks to Keynote lectures and conferences on research-creation at both Quebec City’s Université Laval and the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Santiago, Chile. He has also explored these ideas as a Visiting Scholar at Duke University’s Centre for the Study of Canada, as well as through his current position as scholar-in-residence at the National Circus School in Montreal.

Leroux’s new book, Dialogues fantasques pour causeurs éperdus, will be launched on Thursday, November 29 from 5 to 7 p.m. [EST] at Librairie Le Port de tête (262 Mont-Royal Ave. E. [Montréal]). [emphasis mine]

The Hexagram Institute at Concordia, which Leroux directs, hosts a portal, Resonance, where you can view four of the Institute’s projects and the full text for the quote at the beginning of this post.

I wonder how long before someone decides to extend the exploration so it includes the sciences too.

I previously wrote about Concordia’s Jason Lewis and his work with poetry and mobile media in my June 29, 2012 posting.

P.o.E.M.M. from Concordia University (Canada)

Since it’s Friday before a long weekend (Canada Day on July 1, 2012 this  coming Sunday), I want to end the week on a poetic note. Concordia University’s  P.o.E.M.M. (Poems for Excitable [Mobile] Media)  project recently won an award from the Electronic Literature Organization at its annual exhibition held June 22 – 23, 2012 in West Virginia. From the June 28, 2012 news item on physorg.com,

Poetry has been following the rules for centuries. From the strict structure of the haiku to the rhythmic rhyme of the ballad, verse can be daunting to both professional poets and amateur auteurs. But poems are also media for the masses and one Concordia researcher is using mass media to put them back in the hands of the people.

Jason Lewis’s work is an integral part of Concordia’s Department of Design and Computation Arts, with projects ranging from computer game development to typographic design. A poet as well as a techie, the associate professor is combining his computing skills with the act of literary creation to develop new methods of poetic expression through a suite of ten brand new digital poetry apps.

Known as P.o.E.M.M., short for Poems for Excitable [Mobile] Media, the project is a series of poems written and designed to be read on touch devices, from large-scale exhibition surfaces to mobile screens.

For Lewis, the fact that the iPhone and iPad are personal devices was key in P.o.E.M.M.’s development. “Poetry is an intimate medium but when it comes to digital poetry, the computer screen creates distance between writer and reader. Touch screens allow the audience to be drawn into a closer proximity to the computer screen than ever before,” says Lewis, whose first digital poetry project for a touch-screen interface was created back in 2007, when the iPhone was in its infancy.

Here’s a video of the Smooth Second Bastard piece,

From the June 27, 2012 news item by Cléa Desjardins for Concordia University,

Smooth Second Bastard features three texts that are related meditations on the difference between being asked “where ya from” and being asked “are you from around here?” [which was released on June 26, 2012]

The first version of each app is built around Lewis’s poetry, but then each is extended to include texts by other poets, who write on themes ranging from miscommunication across language and cultural identity to the excitement of heading out into a great unknown.

Released as separate applications available for download through iTunes, and developed in collaboration with former computation arts student Bruno Nadeau, the P.o.E.M.M. apps allow readers to interact with the poem’s text. New iterations of the apps will give users the chance to add their own words, use Twitter feeds to generate new strands of poetry, and to play with words, design and structure to generate original poems that can be rewritten at the tap of a screen.

If you go to the P.o.E.M.M. website, you’ll find more pieces, their apps, and descriptions such as this,

Smooth Second Bastard is a meditation on the difference between being asked “where ya from” and being asked “are you from around here?” Growing up where and how I did, [emphasis mine] I tend to see insider-outsider dynamics before I see prejudice. Such a viewpoint can be gracious or naïve, and I sometimes find it difficult to tell which.

Smooth Second Bastard was commissioned by the imagineNATIVE Festival for the Vital to the General Public Welfare exhibition. The exhibition version consists of a triptych with 42″ two-point touch surface + a 122″ x 13″ digital print + a 40″ x 24″ digital print.

As for Lewis’ comment  ” Growing up where and how I did”, I excerpted this description from Lewis in his ‘No Choice About the Terminology’ piece,

… often struggling with what terminology to use to describe my ethnicity (Cherokee, Hawaiian, Samoan, raised in northern California rural mountain redneck culture), and my profession (artist? poet? software developer? educator? designer?), and recognizing both the danger and seduction of neat categorizations …

Interesting to contemplate “where ya from/are you from around here” and how we classify ourselves as we celebrate Canada’s 145th anniversary.

Bacteria and biobatteries

It’s more a possibility at the moment than anything else but researchers at Concordia University in Montréal, Canada have found a way to make an enzyme behave more like a battery. From the April 19, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

Concordia Associate Professor László Kálmán — along with his colleagues in the Department of Physics, graduate students Sasmit Deshmukh and Kai Tang — has been working with an enzyme found in bacteria that is crucial for capturing solar energy. Light induces a charge separation in the enzyme, causing one end to become negatively charged and the other positively charged, much like in a battery.

In nature, the energy created is used immediately, but Kálmán says that to store that electrical potential, he and his colleagues had to find a way to keep the enzyme in a charge-separated state for a longer period of time.

“We had to create a situation where the charges don’t want to or are not allowed to go back, and that’s what we did in this study,” he says.

Kálmán and his colleagues showed that by adding different molecules, they were able to alter the shape of the enzyme and, thus, extend the lifespan of its electrical potential.

In the April 17, 2012 news item written by Luciana Gravotta for Concordia University, Kálmán provides an explanation of why the researchers were changing the enzyme’s shape,

In its natural configuration, the enzyme is perfectly embedded in the cell’s outer layer, known as the lipid membrane. The enzyme’s structure allows it to quickly recombine the charges and recover from a charge-separated state.

However, when different lipid molecules make up the membrane, as in Kálmán’s experiments, there is a mismatch between the shape of the membrane and the enzyme embedded within it. Both the enzyme and the membrane end up changing their shapes to find a good fit. The changes make it more difficult for the enzyme to recombine the charges, thereby allowing the electrical potential to last much longer.

“What we’re doing is similar to placing a race car on snow-covered streets,” says Kálmán. The surrounding conditions prevent the race car from performing as it would on a racetrack, just like the different lipids prevent the enzyme from recombining the charges as efficiently as it does under normal circumstances.

Apparently the researchers are hoping to eventually create biocompatible batteries with enzymes and other biological molecules replacing traditional batteries that contain toxic metals.